A story of partial transition to clean cooking fuel

This Kenyan woman lives in a village near Eldoret in Uasin Gishu county, and has just started to prepare a meal on her liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) stove. Hers is a single-burner ‘meko’ type stove that is fixed directly to the gas cylinder. She likes using LPG very much because it is quick and easy to use, and is clean – there is no smoke and her pots are not blackened.

A woman prepares food on an LPG cooker in here home, bit still uses the traditional wood stove for some purposes. This so-called 'stacking' for a variety of reasons, including cost and availability of LPG, and families getting used to using the new fuel for all of their cooking, but it does mean the kitchen is still much more polluted that if LPG was used exclusively

But behind her in the corner of the kitchen is a traditional wood stove with which she also cooks regularly. This mixed use of clean and solid fuel (known as ‘stacking’) is common, and will result in the cook and other members of the family still being exposed to health-damaging levels of household air pollution. Across developing countries, three billion people still rely on solid fuels and kerosene; WHO estimates that the resulting air pollution causes almost 4 million premature deaths each year. Many African governments, including that of Kenya, are committed to majority clean fuel use by 2030 or soon after, but the pace of change is far too slow.

Why is this? And what is needed to speed up the switch to modern, clean and efficient energy? The reasons that this woman and many others like her across Africa give for not adopting or using LPG exclusively include a mix of economic, practical and cultural factors.

Barriers to adoption and use of LPG

The initial expense of the LPG appliances is relatively high, and without financial assistance can be prohibitive for many poorer homes. The household then has to cover the cost of cylinder refills every few weeks, depending on how much they need to use the stove. For households that collect wood or other biomass from the forests without payment, the cost of cylinder refills may seem expensive. But if they are already buying wood, charcoal or kerosene, they may find that LPG costs no more – and may in fact be cheaper.

Households with low and irregular incomes can struggle to find the relatively large outlay needed for a 6kg or 12kg cylinder refill without some form of financial assistance. Help may be on the way, however. For example, innovative new ‘pay as you go’ (PAYG) LPG technology is being developed which uses a ‘smart meter’ on the cylinder that is linked to the service provider via the mobile phone network. These systems allow users to receive a full cylinder, but purchase only the amount of fuel they need for the next day or few days. A number of such PAYG programmes are now being tested in Kenya and Tanzania, and if the early acceptance and success are confirmed on a wider scale, may accelerate LPG access for millions of households.

The mobile money system (mPesa) in Kenya can facilitate the purchase of LPG refills, particularly if linked to a 'pay as you go' system

The mobile money system (mPesa) in Kenya can facilitate the purchase of LPG refills, particularly if linked to a ‘pay as you go’ system

Poor availability and supply of LPG is another potentially important barrier to the adoption and use of this fuel. People will revert to their previous fuels if LPG is difficult or impossible to obtain when their cylinders are empty, or if the retail points are too far away from their homes. So, it is vital that the LPG market in a country has sufficient infrastructure to produce and/or import LPG, store, distribute and sell it, and that there are sufficient cylinders in circulation to ensure these are always available when customers need them. 

Filling LPG cylinders at the GlocalGaz plant, Limbe, Cameroon

GlocalGaz LPG filling plant, Limbe, Cameroon, a key part of the market infrastructure required to supply customers

Some people say they prefer the taste of food cooked using the traditional methods on a wood fire. This is something we can all recognise, but it is a fact that those habitually using clean fuels in both developed and developing countries do find ways to ensure that food tastes the way they like it.

The woman in the photo at the start of this article was not afraid of LPG fires or explosions, but this fear is not uncommon in developing countries. Although such events are comparatively rare, when they do occur, they attract considerable media attention and this understandably discourages some people from switching to LPG. So long as the market is correctly organised and regulated, however, LPG is a very safe fuel.

The key to ensuring a safe LPG market is the so-called ‘cylinder recirculation model’, whereby marketing companies own the cylinders. When the customer needs a refill, they exchange the empty cylinder for a full one that has been checked by the marketer who is responsible for its safety. Once this system is in place across a country, and regulated to ensure compliance, the public can feel much more confident about using LPG. It is also important to educate households on how to use LPG safely in the home, including checking for leaks.

Progress against Sustainable Development Goal(SDG)-7 targets for clean energy in Africa:

Africa is not currently on track to meet its SDG-7 targets, including 7.1: By 2030, ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services.  For this to change, given current trends in clean fuel adoption and the rapidly expanding population across the continent, there needs to be well-planned investment in LPG and other clean household fuels, and quickly.

LPG, electricity (however generated, but especially through renewable sources), biogas and ethanol, along with natural gas where available, can all contribute to meeting the SDG-7 targets. Among these energy sources, however, LPG currently offers the best combination of immediate availability and affordability. Furthermore, it is abundant (and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future), popular as a cooking fuel choice, and very practical in terms of transport and storage. It therefore offers to best option for making rapid and substantial progress towards the targets for clean fuel use in African homes, set by many of the continent’s governments.

Questions have been raised about promoting LPG due to it being a fossil fuel, but the evidence does not support this concern when it is going to be used as a clean alternative to biomass. Detailed, comparative impact studies show that switching populations dependent on biomass to LPG would have minimal effects on climate warming and will protect forests. Meanwhile, there is growing interest in renewable BioLPG which, as it is chemically the same as fossil-derived LPG, can simply be fed into existing infrastructure, bottles and stoves. Although it will be some years before BioLPG can meet demand, over time it will likely become an important renewable option for clean cooking. Fossil-derived LPG can serve as the best short- to medium-term solution, until sufficient BioLPG and other renewable fuels and energy sources are available and affordable.

It is encouraging that precisely this strategy appears in recent UK government guidance on LPG as a clean cooking and heating fuel in developing countries. This report, Aligning UK international support for the clean energy transition – Guidance, March 2021, states, “LPG has a key role to play in providing access to clean cooking and heating, given its time saving and health advantages and relatively low emissions when compared with solid biomass, coal and oil, until the transition to renewable fuels is feasible.” 

It remains to be seen how the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) applies this guidance in practice. But development finance from respected agencies such as the UK Government, the World Bank and others, linked to technical support, will help create the conditions for safe and effective LPG market growth. This, in turn, can attract the private investment required to meet the demand for clean household fuel from a rapidly growing African population.

A Chinese proverb tells us that “the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the second best time is now”. The stark inequity in access to and use of clean household energy that still exists across the world today requires that the international community think and act with the same sense of urgency. Almost 35 years ago, Kirk Smith brought this problem to the attention of the world with his landmark review ‘Biofuels, Air Pollution and Health‘. Seven years ago, the World Health Organization published Indoor Air Quality Guidelines on Household Fuel Combustion (2014) that called for the prioritisation of clean fuels. And 2030 is only nine years away.

Efficient, clean and safe energy in the home will contribute to achieving other SDGs and thereby help to secure a wide range of health and development benefits. Now is the time to support governments across Africa and in other developing countries by investing in LPG, a fuel which is available and abundant, will have minimal adverse environmental impacts at the scale required, and can in due course be substituted by renewable alternatives.